Taste: My Life Through Food Stanley Tucci Penguin Fig Tree, €21
I have been compulsively making pasta for a week now and it is all Stanley Tucci’s fault. When I say ‘making’, I mean the full, from-scratch, hand-rolling whammy. I started with lasagne sheets on Monday and by Wednesday I’d strung up a line on which to drape the pasta awaiting cooking. Suffice it to say, I was under the Tucci Sway.
For anyone unfamiliar with Stanley Tucci, he is an award-winning Italian-American actor, writer, producer and director who has also parlayed his gusto for gastronomy into two cookbooks and a much-lauded food-travel Netflix series, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. His new memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, promises tantalising insight.
Firstly, I want to talk about our key ingredient here: Tucci himself. For the last few weeks, whenever anyone asked what I was currently reading and I said Tucci, the reaction was either wildly excited or devoid of any emotion whatsoever. There are, it appears, only two people in the world – those who are barely aware of him and those who adore Tucci so fervently they would give up their first born for just a rub of his lovely, bald pate. Seriously, a woman told me this. In this memoir, it is easy to see why. He is erudite, stylish and very funny.
The chapters are casually littered with precise but unfussy recipes for dishes like Pasta Fagioli (My Way) and refined cocktails – there’s a whole chapter given to the Martini. Scenes from idiosyncratic family spats are rendered in clever movie dialogue. The inside covers are adorned with pleasingly loose illustrations by Tucci himself.
His knowledge of food seems innate, as though acquired by osmosis through the feasting of his family. His ideas about food are definitive and hilariously outlined: “I am inclined to confess my feelings about another... egregious culinary crime that I have witnessed from time to time. It is the act...(I feel my blood pressure rising as I type. Jesus. I hope I make it through this without having a mini stroke or worse)... the act ... (F**k, I’m starting to sweat)... the act… (Breathe, breathe)... of a full-grown adult… cutting their spaghetti.”
He proposes a solution to this transgression by way of a David Mamet quote: “The only way to teach these people is to kill them.”
Mamet was not only rattling around Tucci’s head, he was also rattling around Tucci’s neighbourhood in the 1980s. The passages recalling this vintage New York of delis and diners and the sense of possibility that being 20-something holds are my favourite sections. For Tucci, that life-changing catapult to instant stardom didn’t quite happen.
Unsurprisingly, his breakthrough movie – 14 years into his career – was about food, and a family affair: Big Night, co-written with his director cousin, sister Christine played a role and their mother wrote a cookbook for it. The film, which Tucci also co-directed, centred around two brothers, Primo and Secondo, whose restaurant is struggling.
The family feasts in Taste recall Big Night, which ends with an elaborate meal. His seaside lobster lunch with his late wife Kate’s family is some of the most vivid and lush writing of the whole book, while a chapter devoted to the Tucci household’s Christmas traditions (including the annual hijacking of the day by one particularly temperamental dish, the Timpano) is hilarious.
“I am of course being a bit harsh when I make it seem as though Christmases were ruined completely by an inanimate drum of pasta-filled pastry but sometimes, it came close,”
he writes. The pain of the Christmas Timpano is of course not the only grief in Tucci’s life. Kate, his first wife, died of cancer in 2009, and in 2017 he himself had a cancerous tumour at the base of his tongue removed. He needed to be fed through a tube in his stomach during treatment – a harsh sentence for a man of taste like Tucci.
However, these interludes of private pain are barely touched upon in Taste, nor is his second marriage to Felicity Blunt (sister of Emily). Tucci is seductive with his passionate prose and devotion to pleasure. This helps us to miss the fact he is also guarded. Even his A-List name dropping is disappointingly discreet.
His curiosity, in this book at least, is reserved for his meals and not self-reflection. What lies beyond his dinner table he is certainly not telling.